Times are pretty strange, right?
Like when you hear an American President stand up on the floor of Congress and say the following, you know things have changed.
“Wall Street didn’t build this country. The middle class built this country. And unions built the middle class. And that’s why I’m calling on Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organise Act and send it to my desk to support the right to unionise.”
These are the words of President Joe Biden in his first speech to Congress as President last week to mark 100 days in office, reversing decades of hostility, indifference and neglect of America’s working people, and telling the world what we already know – unions improve the lives of workers, their families and communities.
On the Job spoke with ACTU Secretary Sally McManus who was delighted to hear President Biden giving voice to the urgent need to protect the rights of workers to organize, and the acknowledgement of the role of unions as a force for good in civil society.
“After a thirty-year project of attacking unions, the US under President Biden has done an about face. Attacking unions has led to massive inequality and a huge class of working poor,” McManus said.
“President Biden is the first President in a long time to not just be completely unapologetic in being a “union man”, but he is intent on reversing the laws that have suppressed unions.
“When working people are held back, so is a society, and President Biden knows it.”
Compare President Biden’s understanding of the role of unions in building a better nation with the behavior of the Morrison government and its failed attempts to further destroy unions in Australia.
There was the nasty ‘Ensuring Integrity’ legislation of 2019 that was designed to further restrict union access to workers, criminalise union activism and to put unions into an administrative straitjacket that made it virtually impossible for them to function.
It was defeated in the Senate after an unrelenting campaign of opposition by unionists and their supporters.
The Morrison government wasn’t ready to give up on its anti-union obsession and came back with another swing at the movement in late 2020, putting up its ill-fated Omnibus Bill which would have cut workers’ pay and entitlements with little recourse for unions.
It too was punted in the Senate, leaving Scott Morrison, Michaela Cash and Christian Porter empty handed and red faced.
The contrast between the US President’s conviction that unions provide the foundation for working people to lead prosperous lives and build strong communities, and the Australian conservative obsession with destroying unions couldn’t be more stark.
Ryan Batchelor is the Executive Director of the progressive think tank The McKell Institute Victoria. He told On the Job that the Biden speech offers unions in Australia a chance to reframe the conversation about their importance.
“It shows what a difference an election makes, when you have someone elected who understands that trickledown economics doesn’t work and hasn’t delivered, but also recognises that the key to rebuilding [the American] economy is to make sure that working people have collective strength and that is best achieved through unions,” said Batchelor.
“They [unions] deliver better pay, conditions and a better community for everyone.”
Whilst President Biden’s speech focusses on the American economy and the plight of its workers, Batchelor believes that the change in attitude towards unions can resonate in Australia and provides an opportunity for workers to fight back against the continued demonisation of unions by the Morrison government and its fellow travellers in the media.
It also provides huge encouragement to continue to press the case for a bold, expansive, nation-building agenda like that which is outlined in Australian Unions’ own plan for a stronger, balanced and inclusive recovery.
“I think what we’ve got in Australia is that, fundamentally, we haves seen that good government programs [campaigned for and won by unions] change lives – like Medicare and superannuation,” Batchelor said.
“Australians understand that transformative social programs can change lives and that those should be funded by good government spending, and then government revenue raising to help pay for them.
“That’s why you see massive public support for an increase in taxation to help pay for a better aged care system, because people know that you can’t have good services without paying for them.”
At the top of the agenda for American and Australian workers is establishing new, secure, well paid jobs with the right to organise and to collective bargaining. Batchelor said that the pandemic exposed just how disastrous the gig economy and insecure work for workers and their communities.
“The last 12 months have shown us that insecurity for some means vulnerability for all.
“People in insecure work, who turn up to work sick, because they don’t have sick leave or any leave at all. We had people moving between multiple jobs because they’re working more than one job to make enough money to live on. Those sorts of employment circumstances have consequences for us all.”
The Biden speech alone won’t change anything for workers in America or Australia, but Ryan Batchelor believes that seizing the moment and pushing for real change has arrived.
“People have seen the problem. Now it’s time to push for a solution because moments like these show us that sometimes we need to have changes to the rules of the game in order to see some benefits for everyone.”